Full disclosure: I'm a longtime fan of Between the Sheets, the brainchild of designer Layla L'Obatti. Not only are Venus in Play PJs ridiculously comfortable, but I admire the company's longstanding commitment to sustainability and ethical manufacturing. I asked Layla to interview here at Bluestockings following a rich, thought provoking twitter conversation about diversity and representation in lingerie ads with Rose Wednesday and small bust blogger Denocte of Kurvendiskussionen.
To an extent, the label we use for designer interviews here at Bluestockings--"up and coming"--feels a bit counterintuitive with Between the Sheets, since Layla has so much industry experience. But Between the Sheets has recently decided to move away from wholesale and dedicate themselves solely to their brand, and so in some ways, this move marks a new independence for a brand many of us know and love.
Tell us about yourself and how you discovered lingerie.
I was introduced to lingerie while I was at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology]. I chose to specialize in intimate apparel. Back then, you chose a specialty as a sophomore, so I knew early on. I loved the challenge of fitting garments to a female boy—that, I loved lace, so it was either lingerie or evening wear. The rest is history!
What inspired you to start Between the Sheets?
At FIT, I had a chance to be in the school fashion show. [You just did] one garment, but they changed the curriculum to have a presentation, which for lingerie really changes the dynamic. Fitting the curves of a woman versus the curves of a mannequin/dressform are totally different. So, I took the initiative of founding and then independently running a fashion show for myself and my fellow students, and I called it “Between the Sheets Fashion Show.” I was trying to come up with a tagline that would cover what I deemed all categories of intimate apparel, and this little phrase came up— “New York Fashion Between the Sheets.” Eventually, we dropped “New York Fashion” and it just became “Between the Sheets.”
I ran this event for three years until I graduated. Initially, I worked in the industry designing sweaters. Then I went back to intimates, until I left to bring Between the Sheets back to life as a brand. The real push was two things. First, not feeling like I was living up to my potential in the position I was in. Second, I wasn’t comfortable with the way that our production worked. Hearing the backroom discussion about new upcoming countries that would be affordable to produce in felt exploitative.
Black Petal Play set, Ombre Tights. btslingerie.com
Between the Sheets has a longstanding commitment to sustainability, and you’re also incredibly transparent about your business practices. Was this always a part of your brand vision? How have customers responded to this core business value?
We’ve gotten great feedback in the form of press and inclusion in green/eco/sustainable lingerie gift guides. Knowing who makes your product is a huge awareness shift that I think we see happening more and more with shows, social media movements, and blogs devoted to sustainability, such as Note Passer and EcoCult.
Brands obviously need to make money to survive, but I wish more people knew how much people in other countries make and that many brands/retailers are trying to either keep that low or push it lower by finding new countries to produce in, countries that haven’t experienced enough of a social push to drive wages up. I started Between the Sheets because I couldn’t see myself spending my life as part of the corporate machine. I wanted to prove that it can be done ethically stateside. I also wanted to make lingerie here and retain the few skilled workers we have left.
Since we launched, we’ve seen a lot of “Made in USA” brands move most if not all of their production overseas. I don’t want to do that, ever. I’d rather open our own factory here. I know that in a lot of other categories this is easier, but with small garments, people expect to pay less, so the margins are smaller. It's a delicate balance.
Lilac Venus in Play PJ set. btslingerie.com
Do you see a difference in expectations around sustainability with small, indie companies as opposed to the big corporations?
When a big box brand makes a green capsule to clean up their fast fashion image, everyone covers it. There is no nuance to that discussion. On the other hand, in the world of indies, if you’re not militantly eco/sustainable then you can get either criticized for not going full in. It's all counterintuitive. We should be applauding any effort made as long as it's a commitment.
What are some of the primary challenges you’ve faced as an independent designer and small business owner?
There is never enough time in the day, and it’s all you. While this is rewarding, it takes time to reach that critical stage of hiring when you can get a hand. I’ve been blessed with the luck of finding a supportive partner right before I started this. My now-husband and I had just met and moved in together. I have also been lucky enough to connect with contractors that help us manufacture the collections; without them, I wouldn’t be able to bring the full vision to life.
In the beginning, we had an economic stimulus loan, and later another. We’ve paid off our first, which is huge, but that also meant not taking a paycheck for myself in order to be able to fund the future of the business. As a bootstrapped entrepreneur, you work hard. You make tough personal choices daily, and often times, the time it takes to see results will be longer than your idealistic perspective. That idealism--aka naiveté--is a shield in the beginning, because that rosy disposition gives you the courage to forge ahead when most hold back in fear. The longer I’ve been in business, the more road tested the brand and product, the challenge has become letting go of things I’ve wanted and acknowledging what really is and isn’t working. That takes a different kind of fearlessness.
Black Petal Play set, Ombre Tights. btslingerie.com
You routinely feature women of color as models in your lookbooks. Can you speak more about issues of representation and diversity in the industry? How have you personally approached these issues as a designer?
I have always wanted to feature a variety of models of different ethnicities because personally, growing up, I never “saw myself” in ads or on TV. When you have a mane of dark curly hair and a mixed complexion (olive but with freckles), you can get a bit disenfranchised when actresses/models present a homogenous ideal of beauty. My vision is to portray confidence, self love, intimacy, and sensuality that a woman can relate to, regardless of her relationship status, age, or race. As the brand grows, my vision for this will be more able to come out, both in the product and the way we present it.
Peach Petal Play set, Grey Robe. btslingerie.com
What’s next for Between the Sheets? If you could do anything as a brand, no limits, what would you do?
Personally, I’m focusing on finding work/life balance through it all. So far, we’ve come as far as we have with just me. I can only imagine what I’d be able to do with a team--that’s my next step. As a brand, I really want to create a lifestyle that encompasses leisure and the home environment. If that means dressing the whole family, home fragrance, who knows? But if I’ve learned one thing, it's not to let my big dreams disenchant me with the progress made day to day!